FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Jack was a parishioner of my first congregation. He was as devout a believer as I ever knew, but was plagued with severe arthritis that robbed him of mobility, sleep and sometimes the ability to concentrate. One day I came to see him, and as we sat together in his kitchen, he pushed a mail order advertisement across the table to me. The ad featured a miracle cure for arthritic pain. It promised near instant relief and, as is usually the case for such ruses, it contained testimonials from several formerly crippled people who were now climbing mountains, jumping out of airplanes and running marathons. “I sent my order and a check out this morning,” said Jack through his tears. “I’m not a stupid man, Pastor,” he said. “I know it’s a hoax. I know it won’t heal me. But Pastor, I had such a horrible night last night-and I wanted so badly for this ad to be true. I wanted so badly to believe it. I just couldn’t help myself.” My heart ached for Jack-and burned with wrath against the heartless, callus, lowlife slime behind that ad specifically designed to reap corporate profits from Jack’ misery. I saw in a very concrete way the demonic nature of temptation and its devastating effect on those who fall prey to it.
Now you might point out that, unlike Jack, Adam and Eve were in no such desperate straits. They were living in paradise, after all. But perhaps that is the whole point. We imagine that life would be so much better if we could free ourselves from pain, get rid of our debt burden, get away from difficult family situations or get hold of enough money to make us financially secure. Yet this lesson from Genesis tells us that, even when given everything we need (or think we need), we still feel insecure. We still think we need more. We still imagine that we are in a zero sum game in which we have to get full ownership and control. Of course, this is delusional thinking. We don’t really own or control anything-not our homes, our children or even our own lives. We lose it all in the end. Nobody gets off this planet alive.
It is precisely here where the serpent injects his poison. “You shall not die,” he assures us. “You don’t have to accept the limits God places on you. You can be ‘like God.’” It’s a preposterous lie, but a comforting one. We want desperately to believe the serpent, though common sense tells us he can’t possibly be speaking the truth. In spite of our sophisticated, scientific understanding of the universe, there is still a part of us that can’t help falling for the serpent’s empty promise of immortality. Perhaps that is why we have such difficulty planning for our last years on this earth. Maybe that is why so many of us resist moving out of our homes, even when the burden of maintaining them is well beyond our capability. Maybe that is what makes it so difficult to discuss hospice arrangements for our dying loved ones and medical directives for ourselves when the time comes that we are unable to make our own choices. There is at the core of my being the blind, irrational hope that none of this really applies to me and I don’t need to trouble myself with it-at least not yet. This latent fear of death is well captured in the following poem by Deborah Landau:***
I Don’t Have a Pill for That
It scares me to watch
a woman hobble along
the sidewalk, hunched adagio
leaning on —
there’s so much fear
I could draw you a diagram
of the great reduction
all of us will soon
The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.
This book is nearly halfway read.
I don’t have a pill for that,
the doctor said.
Source: Poetry Magazine (January 2001) c. Deborah Landau.
The devil knows how to exploit our craven fear of death. He knows how frantically we want that “pill,” how much we want to escape the grave and how eager we are to grasp any straw, however feeble, that promises a way around it. He knows how sweet his empty promises sound in our ears. And we know how vulnerable we are to voices that promise us quick fixes, easy solutions and painless resolutions. History is littered with the ruins of nations destroyed by demagogues promising wealth, glory and jobs with little or no cost to a people hungry for a better life. The cosmetic industry makes a fortune selling creams and lotions that promise to remove wrinkles and obscure all other evidence of aging-as though that could fool the grim reaper. On the extreme end of things, people with the means to do so are having their bodies cybernetically frozen in hopes that we will someday discover technology allowing us to unfreeze and resuscitate them once again. Is not all of this simply an expression of our irrational belief in the serpent’s promise that, if we push hard enough against our mortal limits, we will become “like God?”
Jesus isn’t buying any of it. He knows full well that the devil’s promises are empty and that he cannot deliver on any of them. Jesus knows well enough that, as God’s human creature, he is not autonomous but that his life depends on the fruits of creation that are God’s free gifts. Jesus knows that the power of empires and armies is illusory. He knows full well that pain, suffering and death are the price we pay for living freely, joyfully and faithfully as God’s beloved creatures within the limits of our humanity. Jesus has no interest in being “like God.” Instead, he lives a life that is genuinely and faithfully human. You might say that Jesus is the first truly human person.
During this season of Lent we are challenged to see through the devil’s lies and recognize the grip they have on our lives. We are challenged to let go of our delusions of autonomy, control and invulnerability. We will be reminded this week that we are but dust into which God graciously breaths the spirit of life. To dust we shall return in the hope that the same God will breathe on us once more that holy wind of life and raise us up just as he did our Lord Jesus Christ. We will be reminded once more that it is in pouring out our lives in love for God and faithful service to our neighbors that we receive them back again one hundred fold.
***Deborah Landau is Director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She studied at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Brown University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and earned a PhD in English and American Literature. She co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview program Open Book on Slate.com. In 2016, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. You can find out more about Deborah Landau and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.
Our reading from Sunday is attributed in the main to the Jawhist. Unlike the first chapter of Genesis where the Priestly writer testifies to God’s creation of the universe in a poetic hymn building on the six days of creation to the culmination on the Seventh Day when God rests from his labor, the Jawhist spins a simple narrative about the creation. God first creates an “earth creature.” This creature, though human, is not properly speaking a “man.” He is an “adam,” having been taken from the earth (“earth” being “adamah” in Hebrew). Not until God recognizes that it is not good for this “adam” to be alone and creates from his own body a female counterpart can he be called a “man.” The Hebrew word for a male human being is “ish” and that for a female, “ishah.” The term “ish” is not used for the “adam” until the creation of the woman. Genesis 2:23.
Though seemingly primitive, this story is a nuanced account of humanity’s problematic relationship with its Creator. As such, it is less an explanation for how evil came into the world and more a description of the way matters now stand. Though Christian and later Jewish tradition has identified the serpent with the devil, that does not seem to have been the intent either of the Jawhist or the subsequent editors. According to the narrative, the serpent is a creature made by God like all other creatures. It is “subtle,” but not necessarily evil. We are not told why the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the forbidden tree or what he stood to gain from humanity’s disobedience. No explanation is given as to why God would place in the garden inhabited by human beings a tree bearing knowledge God did not want for humans to have. But perhaps we are overthinking this. The point seems to be that human beings are creatures. Though endowed with marvelous potential for learning, love and creativity, they are nevertheless bounded by limits. They are mortal. They are dependent upon the rest of creation for their sustenance. They cannot change the past or control the future. They have only today. Yesterday must be surrendered to the God who made it and tomorrow must be left trustingly in God’s hands. In order to live well, human beings must live faithfully within their limits trusting God for what lies beyond.
The serpent suggests that this need not be so. Humans do not have to accept the limits God has placed upon them. They need not accept God’s determination of what is “good” for them. If God places limits on Adam and Eve, it can only be that God is holding something back. God has goods he doesn’t want to share. The bottom line, as far as the serpent is concerned, is that God cannot be trusted to do right by his creatures. “So,” says the serpent, “don’t believe for one minute that you will die from eating the fruit of the tree. That’s just an empty threat. The tree is the key to being master of your own destiny. Do you want to be a humble little gardener for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you rather be lord of the garden?”
It is a pity the lectionary does not let the entire story be told. If it were to do so, we would learn that there are betrayals going on at all levels here. Adam and Eve betray the trust invested in them by God. Adam throws Eve under the bus when confronted by God over his disobedience. Genesis 3:12. Eve blames the snake, thereby implicating God who is ultimately responsible for having made such a creature. Genesis 3:13. Harmony between the Creator and his human subjects, harmony in the most intimate of human relationships and harmony between human beings and the earth from which they were taken has all been disrupted. Genesis 3:14-19.
In the end, we are left with a humanity that rages futilely against its limits, running up again and again against God’s firm “no.” The forces of nature we cannot control, our weakness and vulnerability to accident and disease, the looming prospect of death become oppressive burdens when we can no longer recognize on the frontiers of these limiting factors the gracious God who can be trusted to see to our ultimate good. We have seized the unlimited prerogative of God, but as limited mortals we cannot bear it. Psychologist and Philosopher Ernest Becker puts it all quite succinctly in secular language.
“Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, (c. 1973 Free Press Paperbacks). That pretty much reflects the terrifying state of human existence in the absence of God’s grace reflected in our reading from Genesis.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
The psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. Jesus reminds us that illness and disability are not necessarily related to anyone’s sin. John 9:3. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39. When ministering to the sick and dying, one must always take care to avoid any suggestion that the individual’s suffering is a punishment from God. It is one thing for the sufferer himself/herself to come to an understanding of sin through reflection upon his/her ordeal and discover the healing power of forgiveness. It is quite another for someone else to pronounce a judgment of sin from the outside and expect the sufferer to plead guilty and repent!
That said, sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Chronic anger leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Our careless and excessive eating habits often lead to obesity and the health problems it creates. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to apply these general observations to instances of individual suffering.
Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”
Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people.
In our reading for Sunday, Paul points out that sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam. As we have seen in our first lesson, Adam’s and Eve’s sin consisted in this: they failed to trust God to see to their good and sought to reach beyond their creaturely limits and determine that good on their own and for themselves. Paul points out that sin was in the world before the law was given to Israel. Sin therefore existed even when there was no law by which to measure it. Paul will go on to point out that, while the law can reveal and expose sin, it cannot be used as a tool for overcoming sin. Romans 7:7-12. At its core, sin is our failure to trust God to be God. Therefore, the remedy for sin is the restoration of our trust or “faith” in God. Unless we can come to the point where we trust God enough to be God, we will never be able to live faithfully within our creaturely limitations. Without faith, we will always be reaching up in a futile effort to take control.
How, then, is our lack of trust overcome? How can the nagging doubt about God’s faithfulness planted in our hearts by the serpent be driven out? For an answer to that question, we need to back track to Romans 5:6-11. There Paul points out that while we were still sinful, faithless and rebelling against God, God showed his faithfulness toward and love for us in Jesus’ death for our sake. Romans 5:8. The death of Jesus demonstrates both the depth of human depravity in rejecting the very best God had to give and the greater depth of God’s love which will simply not take no for an answer. Paul wraps up his argument in Romans 8:31-39. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not give us all things with him?” Romans 8:32. “For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is the preaching of this wonderful good news that ignites trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness, silencing forever the serpent’s lies.
As usual, Matthew employs numerous citations and allusions to people and events in the Hebrew Scripture’s narrative of God’s saving acts for Israel. Jesus’ forty days of fasting echoes Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment for unfaithfulness on the verge of Canaan. Deuteronomy 8:2-3. It might also allude to the forty days Moses spent fasting on Mt. Sinai to prepare for confirmation of God’s covenant with Israel. Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9. Temptation to turn stones into bread could be an allusion to Moses’ rebellion in striking the stone to bring forth water in Numbers 20:1-13, but I have to say that I think this is a bit of a stretch.
“If you are the son of God…” A first class condition in the Greek, this does not suggest that the devil doubts Jesus’ sonship. It reflects instead a desire to ferret out what sort of son Jesus will be. “Rhma,” is the Greek word used for “word” in Jesus’ scriptural response to the temptation to turn stone into bread. Somewhat broader than the term “logos,” it can include “event,” or “happening.” Just as Israel was made to rely upon the bread “spoken into existence” by the mouth of God while residing in the wilderness, so Jesus relies upon his heavenly Father to provide for his needs in his own wilderness wandering.
The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple follows naturally from Jesus’ response to the last temptation. “Alright, Jesus. So you trust the promises of God to sustain you. Is that it? Well let’s see how much you trust those promises.” The devil is not a flunky when it comes to interpreting scripture. He has the jist of Psalm 91 correct. The psalmist does indeed claim that “because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” Psalm 91:9-10. As we have seen, a similar conviction is expressed more moderately in this Sunday’s psalm. But as previously noted, these are not the only psalms in the Bible. They represent the life experiences of the individuals who prayed them and they still resonate for many people today-but not all people. Sometimes good conduct is not rewarded. Sometimes justice is not done. Sometimes our prayers meet with seeming silence. Often faith finds itself in circumstances where there is little or no evidence of God’s love and protection. There are psalms dealing with these very circumstances also. See, e.g., Psalm 88. Furthermore, the devil would do well to reflect on Psalm 30 in which arrogant presumption brings discipline and divine rebuke. Psalm 30:6-7.
The devil’s hermeneutic (focusing on a single scriptural voice to the neglect of others) is one of choice for culture warriors seeking biblical sanction for their various agendas. By cherry picking the verses you like and ignoring those you don’t, you can make the Bible say just about anything you want. But such use of the Bible does not honor its authority. Rather, it strips the Bible of all authority and makes the Bible a servant of ideologies, political platforms and social agendas.
The last temptation, to employ the power and glory of empire, is perhaps the most difficult to resist. Political power promises swift results-often good results. The only catch is that you need to worship the devil to get it. So political power is not neutral. To employ political means is not the same as using a spade-which could also be used as a weapon-to till a field. It is to enter into the realm of coercion, threats, moral compromises and always ultimately, violence. The devil would argue that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. There will inevitably be blood spilled on the way to a better world. Collateral damage cannot be avoided. Some truths must wait to be spoken until a more opportune time-after the election preferably. The ends justify the means.
But we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that it is precisely the other way around for disciples of Jesus. The means determine the end. In fact, one could well say that the means are the only end a disciple is commanded to pursue. This might not appear to be helpful to persons seeking a general ethic for advancing the common good through political means. But Jesus does not seem interested in that. Indeed, the only time he mentions the nations of the world is when he tells his disciples not to be like them. As far as a disciple is concerned, truth must be spoken without any thought given to the effect it will have on the election of a candidate or the passage of a piece of legislation-however beneficial these may be. Violence must not be employed even in the service of justice and peace. The law courts are not to be used by disciples to defend their rights. This is the shape of Kingdom building Jesus chooses over the devil’s imminently more practical alternatives.